Monday, 2 January 2012

a castle of bone by penelope farmer

i've always been pretty much a voracious reader, but the events of 2011 seem to have numbed my desire to read considerably. in an attempt to force myself to get back in the habit again, i've recently been haunting local bookshops in search of puffin books of a certain age. the more modish among you may use the term "hauntological" to describe the buzz i'm looking for, but i'd just describe it as looking for something "a bit susan coopery or alan garnery or catherine storrish or just a bit... odd". my first attempt - "the ivory anvil" by sylvia fair - didn't really work, as if someone had given fair the idea for a magical little novel but she'd decided to write it in the dullest way possible.... but "a castle of bone"? crikey...



the general concept for the book is pretty much the stuff of countless knockabout kid's books over the years: a magical cupboard that turns objects into a prior form. hence some comedy nonsense about a leather wallet becoming a pig and the family cat returning to kittenhood. it has all the requisite cliches: a bunch of friends on holiday, a magical antique shop that isn't quite what it seems and a series of haunting dreams of the titular castle



but it's also one of the strangest books i've read in... ages. if the content is sometimes reminiscent of "marianne dreams" or "elidor", farmer's style of writing is more like that of alan garner around the "red shift" period (or, if you like, the reason why i won't be lending it to sarah to read). for example, here's a passage towards the end of the book:

"Hugh felt he was a tree: he felt rooted, fibrous, with branches; with sap flowing through him, through every vein. He could feel the whole of himself, both tree and human, his human body like one drawn by an old-fashioned anatomist: so that he could feel the paths and strength of each vein and bone and muscle. He held up his hand and against the light of the fire it looked transparent. He could see the glow of the blood, and the bones of his fingers, knobbed at the knuckles."

the book is apparently for readers of eleven and over, but really it seems more as if charles williams, circa his headiest phase of religious mania, has been given the book to read. it's such a weird, heady little book. it's going to haunt me for ages that i can promise you, but whether or not it's a good children's book or not i've not decided. i do like the idea farmer thought her readership could take on ideas as complex as this, but at other times you get a vague notion that she's getting a little carried away with herself. i think russell hoban managed to achieve much the same thing as "a castle of bone" does in a far pithier, wittier and more haunting manner in his children's classic "the trokeville way". they're definitely of a kind, and make for fascinating reading partners, but i suspect hoban's the one i'll keep coming back to

a quick word on the editions: the puffin cover i have looks like some bad 1970s sci fi cover and has little at all to do with the book in question. i found another even worse cover on abebooks which seems to show someone being transported in some sort of boat by a wizard outside some magical castle which is about as relevant to the book in question as a cover showing, say, a pirate would be. none of these things appear. the best cover, the one which sort of prepares you for the heady contents within, is the american edition also above. but that also looks like the pricey one. in my case i just ignored the cover and gazed longingly at the incredible skill that made the old puffin book plate that lay inside (inscribed to one jocelyn lavin, which seems to be entirely the sort of name for a child who'd have enjoyed this book)

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